Reinventing Labor Day
Reinventing Labor Day
Labor Day is a strange celebration. You don’t typically wish someone a “Happy Labor Day.” The holiday doesn’t have many rituals, except for shopping and barbecuing. For most of us at ERPi, Labor Day marks the last weekend of summer and the start of the school year, and perhaps not a whole lot else.
However, the holiday has a long and rich history – the product of a decades-long civil rights struggle. In the late 1800s the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks. The very poor, immigrants, and children as young as 5 or 6 had the worst lot: extremely unsafe working conditions, hard labor, and the lowest pay. It was this backdrop that gave rise to the labor union movement. Strikes and rallies protested poor conditions. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history. As opinions shifted, employers were compelled to renegotiate hours, pay, and basic working conditions and requirements.
Nearly 140 years on, it’s appropriate that we revisit the origin and true meaning of Labor Day. ERPi’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiative sets out to educate on topics of diversity, inclusion, and awareness. We do this from a corporate perspective, and from the point of view of employees and society. A standard 40-hour week is a great accomplishment, but we have a long way to go in adapting work to a modern workforce and new expectations. Our workplaces (white collar workplaces, at least) are broadly ‘safe,’ but are they fulfilling? Do they address the evolving needs of the workforce? Are all individuals given the same opportunities for employment, growth, and promotion? And how do we balance our work life and non-work lives? For many staff at highly-connected workplaces, particularly in the past several months as people have shifted to working from home, the idea of a ‘work week’ is being eroded as we are connected to our work 24/7.
Change is hard. Laborers demonstrated over a century ago the lengths required to implement what we understand today as basic requirements for workplace environments. There is no reason to think that the next chapter of reform will be any faster or easier. There are thousands of studies and analyses, for instance, demonstrating the value of diversity in hiring; it fosters creativity, can increase productivity and revenue, and improves employee retention. So why are companies still struggling with diversity, equity and inclusion? As with the labor movement of the 1800s, this change will require shifting the narrative until the ideas of increasing diversity and transforming the workplace are broadly shared. Let’s make that what Labor Day is about. Let’s take this opportunity to change peoples’ minds.
A BBQ, by the way, is a great way to honor the original spirit of Labor Day. Take some time off, turn off your phone and computer, and enjoy not being at work!
Paul DeYoung, Director